Thursday, 29 May 2014

Bird Paradise: Exploring Puffin and Scariff Islands, County Kerry, Ireland

The islands off Kerry’s coast are bathed by the Gulf Stream that bestows a warmer yet fickle climate that is often tempestuous, but utterly seductive. An extraordinary light plays on them; their forms change continuously in response to the kaleidoscopic weather patterns. Some are easily accessible, others not so. Puffin and Scariff islands, both uninhabited, are seldom visited. The first is an important nature reserve as a breeding ground for sea birds and access is restricted by BirdWatch Ireland. It is estimated that Puffin Island is home to between 5,000 and 10,000 Atlantic Puffins and up to 20,000 Storm Petrels, not to mention its populations of Manx Shearwaters, Gannets, Guillemots, Kittiwakes, and Razorbills. Scariff, remoter still, is a world away. Here, feral goats roam the tangled vegetation and abandoned buildings stare forlornly across restless seas as the only reminders of past habitation.

On a calm but murky day, our rib boat slips out of the old smuggling village of Portmagee. Aboard are a group of hillwalkers and birdwatchers. The distinctive whale back shape of Puffin Island with its black, rugged cliffs soon looms out of the mist, its cliff-face vantage points home to noisy colonies of Razorbills, Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Herring Gulls; their raucous calls fill the air. The island looks impossible to land on, the sea sucking greedily at slimy rocks as the rib pulls into a rocky inlet. Care is needed to scramble ashore over rocks slick with algae, followed by a steep climb up a cliff gully.

Atop the cliff, the vivid emerald ground of spongy moss and wiry grass interspersed with brilliant patches of pink and yellow flowers, is literally honeycombed with the burrows of rabbits, Puffins and Manx Shearwaters. You need to pay careful attention as you plant your feet, for a broken ankle is a real possibility! Along with predation from Great Black-Headed Gulls, the Puffin and Manx Shearwater populations are under threat from the invasion of mink which have swum across from the mainland. They are exterminating the helpless chicks in their burrows, decimating the numbers of these protected species. We spot one of the metal cages that has been set to try and trap these unwelcome predators. Unfortunately, it’s empty. 

We climb to the highest point of the island which offers fine views and a sense of glorious isolation. A silvery luminescence periodically swallows the smooth emerald contours of the mainland which shimmers in and out of the mist, revealing a ragged coastline of cliffs and zawns gouged out by the merciless Atlantic. The wind bears the rhythmic chugging of fishing boat engines emanating from far below in the mist. Opposite, the lesser peak rises dramatically from a deep, narrow inlet that almost bisects the island, the near vertical black cliffs on either side glisten in the feeble sunlight. 

Near here we spot hundreds of puffins and we sit transfixed just feet away, amused by the antics of the clown faced birds with cartoonishly large, colourful triangular bills. Constantly jostling for space as they waddle about on a rock shelf on their seemingly oversized webbed feet, they stare quizzically at us, totally unperturbed by our presence. Others swoop low over our heads in a whirl of black and white feathers, flashing their gaudy beaks as they come into land.

Atlantic puffins spend months at sea, no one is quite sure where, and only return to land in mid-spring to mate, laying one white egg in May. Both parents take turns incubating the egg, and after about six weeks a fluffy black puffin chick, or ‘puffling’, hatches. These birds are famous for loading their colourful beaks with a dozen or more fish and winging to their burrow to feed their solitary, ravenous chick. It’s incredible to think that they often fly over 20 kilometres out to sea to catch the choicest fish for their pufflings. It’s now late July and very soon the young puffins will waddle down the steep slopes of the island and take to air and ocean to face the long Atlantic winter far out to sea on their own.

The rib boat thumps over the restless waves towards Scariff, scattering sea birds that protest nosily. Eventually we hear the sound of waves washing onto rocks and the island begins to emerge through the mist. As the rib slows, the acrid smell of guano mingles with the sharp smell of sea salt and seaweed. The eerie shrieks and wails of seabirds rend the air as we glide beneath towering cliffs bathed by seas of petrol blue. Huge strands of seaweed sway in the swell and we spot sea urchins, jellyfish and seals in the crystal clear water. Scarrif means ‘rough place’ in the Irish language and it is almost encircled by jagged, steep and inaccessible cliffs, home to gulls, terns and gannets that nestle on every conceivable rock ledge and pinnacle. Their combined chorus is tremendous. We startle a couple of gannets who perform a lumbering dance across the water as they beat their ragged wings to become airborne and a group of juvenile puffins who scurry away, their wings beating the surface of the water in vain, before they relent and dive quickly out of sight. Atop one of the cliffs, a Billy goat bearing an impressive set of curved horns is silhouetted against the grey sky. He watches our boat slip by and imperviously stands his ground as if to announce that the island is his realm. No human has lived here in almost a century and the utter desolation of the place seems to be carved into a flight of old stone steps leading ashore up a narrow cliff face gully.

We begin our ascent of the island, wet grass, ferns and heather wrapping itself around our ankles and slapping at our shins. A group of feral goats pass in and out of the mist and shadow us for the 1.6 kilometre climb to the summit. I find their presence quite unnerving and am relieved when they finally lose interest and melt away into the mist. The summit is wrapped in cloud and the mist is cold and clammy when we stop, so we head down slope past the vestiges of an ancient hermitage covered by a mound of earth and rocks, and old stone walled fields now overgrown with bracken and brambles. The forlorn shells of an abandoned homestead finally take shape in the gloom. We enter an unroofed cottage and stare through a window still sporting a crumbling wooden frame, towards Deenish Island and ponder the life of the family that once lived in this place so cut off from civilisation. 

It was probably the island’s isolation that attracted a colony of medieval monks who built an oratory on the eastern side of the island. The ruins of this and a burial-ground may still be seen. The constant low moaning of the sea engenders a sense of sadness, and I marvel at the self sufficiency and ability to ride out storms that lasted sometimes weeks on end, of those who have made this island their home over the centuries. The lichen covered stones of the buildings and field boundaries are now home to birds, and we are fortunate to catch the strange electronic ‘purring’ sound of a Storm Petrel concealed deep within a crevice of a field wall. We make our way back to the stone steps leading to the shelf of rock below which bobs our bright orange rib boat. And with our departure, this Atlantic outcast is once more swallowed by the mist to return to its eternal loneliness.

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